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Dublin: 16 °C Monday 25 May, 2020

What I learned winding my way through Thailand's sweaty party epicentre

As a tourist, you have to accept that you’re entering a foreign country as exactly that: a tourist. There will always be something inherently transactional about the experience.

Eva Short

WHEN I STEPPED out of Phuket airport into sauna-esque humidity, staring blankly at billboards and signs in swirling, indecipherable Thai characters, I knew I was far from home.

I felt a mix of disquiet and excitement: I’d never been to Asia, let alone Thailand. My travels had always been restricted to the United States and Europe, both of which tend to be characterised by variations upon the culture I am already acclimated to. I spent the hour-long taxi drive to the hotel with my nose pressed against the window, wide-eyed like a toddler.

Sense of vulnerability

The buildings were made of these achingly delicate, ephemeral materials like sheet metal and paper-thin wood. People sat in plastic chairs under paper lanterns and haphazardly draped tarpaulins. It all appeared vulnerable. I felt as if I could lean out and knock everything over with a flick of the wrist, as if they were doll’s houses.

It quickly occurred to me that the word “vulnerable” – which immediately sprung to my mind – implies that there’s something one needs to be protected from, some ineffable yet immediate threat. Maybe I had just spent too much time living in the concrete castles of home which were, in comparison, like fortified garrisons.

Western influence

The West’s influence was evident in the smatterings of English on sign posts and stores like 7-11 and KFC. It annoyed me to see that no matter where I went, I would never escape familiarity.

I struggled with this a lot. It’s an odd feat of mental gymnastics to attempt to understand whether the things I was seeing were really evidence of Western ideals being borrowed or forced upon Eastern cultures – or if my own perspective made me so self-absorbed that I assumed everything in the world revolved around what my idea of society was.

I met a traveller from Ecuador named Carla who had gone to arguably extreme lengths to escape society by spending three weeks living with a tribe in the jungle. She spent days and days meditating, and found it confusing when she remarked that children the next town over would run around naked and shoeless yet inexplicably all had Wi-Fi access and iPads. She was forced to grapple with a monkey who attempted to steal her day’s harvest of mangoes.

I was deeply intrigued, but given that I quite recently screeched blue murder when a seagull snatched a piece of tinfoil out of my hand, I concluded that Carla was a braver soul than I.

Search for authenticity 

I tried my best to seek out the most “authentic” experience possible – I asked questions, trekked with a guide through a small jungle to a Buddhist temple, canoed through lagoons and sea caves while snapping pictures of flora and fauna and even picked up a few Thai phrases. I tried the local, colourful fruits – mangosteens, dragonfruit, rambutans and garlicky “stinky beans” which hung down from trees like large pea pods.

I was so grateful to find these opportunities to learn, because what was generally on offer in more tourist-populated areas was, understandably, contrived. On our walk, the group and I came upon an elephant trekking centre, which had sounded somewhat appealing until I witnessed a clearly injured elephant saddled with seven Americans limping down a winding path. A baby elephant stood chained while visitors paid to feed it tiny bananas.

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Beach party

If it can be believed, this was in fact only the second most disturbing thing I found in Thailand, with my visit to Patong Beach, the party epicentre of the island, taking first. Envision Las Vegas and then make it smaller, sweatier and more Asian (Asian here in no way being used as a pejorative term) and you have Patong. It was like the circle of hell Dante didn’t dare write about – I snaked through crowds of drunken people and sellers who constantly shoved ping-pong show brochures in my face.

If you do not know what a ping-pong show is, Google it at your peril and don’t say I didn’t warn you. My weak Irish body suffered under the heat as I watched scantily clad women hold signs and attempt to beckon middle-aged white men into bars with promises of cheap booze. I saw a girl, aged 12, sitting on the sidewalk at 11pm knitting a bracelet which said “long pussy”.

The child labour aspect aside, I am still haunted by the question “What does ‘long pussy’ even mean?” A tuk-tuk blared the Jersey Shore soundtrack, adorned with two filtered images of a bizarrely specific shot of Al Pacino in Serpico.

Transactional experience

As a tourist, you have to accept that you’re entering a foreign country as exactly that: a tourist. There will always be something inherently transactional about the experience, and seeking the “real” Thailand was always going to be kind of impossible, as it would be ridiculous to say that I have amazing insight after only 10 days in the place.

Overall, I enjoyed it – I think it’s a tonic for the soul to encounter people and places who have different norms and rules, to remind oneself that there’s more than one way to live, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I want to go back.

Eva Short is a freelance journalist and student at Trinity College Dublin. You can follow here on Twitter here

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